Chapter 4

PERPETUATING THE BIAS

Without question, the preponderance of literature on the issue of abuse in our society is dedicated to abuse against women. What is often missing however, is the aspect of context in which the assertions are being made. Even if the presentation or literature is being prepared from a woman’s perspective, to perpetuate a universal bias only serves to entrench an attitude. This is counter productive to the understanding of the problem and therefore to its potential mitigation or resolution. The first hurdle is to convince those in denial that domestic violence is not just a women's issue but rather a societal issue.

As an example, a paper developed for the Canada-U.S.A. Women's Health Forum in August 1996, entitled "Health Aspects of Violence Against Women" gives the classic feminist spin. The authors, Dianne Kinnon and Louise Hanvey, stated their premise as follows: "Violence, including physical assault, sexual assault, neglect, verbal attacks, insults, threats, harassment and other psychological abuses, is an issue central to the quality and well-being of Canadian girls and women. Violence has enormous individual and social costs. Violence against girls and women is both a result of a lesser status of women, and also maintains a power imbalance by keeping all women in a state of fear".

The definition of violence presented is so broad, very few could claim not to have been victims of violence. The fact that the statement only addresses women refutes the fact that men can also be victims of the same sorts of abuse. To ignore or to deny that fact is misguided. The real issue is the abuse of a person ranging from criminal assault to basic meanness and the consequential negative impacts on individuals as well as on society as a whole.

Imagine for a moment the reaction to a speaker, addressing an audience of women attending a seminar on domestic violence, who declares that men can also be victims of violence. Needless to say the scene would be ugly, maybe even violent. That virtual reality is indicative of the high emotion and sensitivity of the issue but it should not breed denial. As with most social problems, overcoming that denial and acknowledging the facts are critical outcomes before progress can be made.

There should also be an acknowledgment that the impacts also have a broad range of severity. Physical and sexual abuse are serious crimes which carry commensurate consequences including imprisonment and prima facie grounds for divorce. The subject matter is described as violence but the authors rely heavily on a range of non-criminal actions such as neglect, verbal attacks and insults. Whether it be deliberate or otherwise, the effect is to embellish or exaggerate to make a point, and they have succeeded.

The authors also made a revealing attempt to rationalize the cause of the problem in their statement that violence against girls and women is both a result of a lesser status of women, and also maintains a power imbalance by keeping all women in a state of fear. Put another way, women are inferior and men keep it that way by threatening. This is the language of militants and provocateurs. The next call is a call to arms to defeat the enemy. Do all women really believe that they have a lesser status in society than men? Do the authors really believe that domestic violence would cease to exist if the roles were reversed or even if men and women had equal status in society?

Equality in the workplace is an important social issue and I have provided some thoughts for consideration later in the book. However, status in society is not, in my view, merely a function of your job in the external workplace and how much money you make. The authors suggest it is a matter of power imbalance and to maintain that power, a man resorts to threats of violence. Does it then follow that a woman in a position of power would resort to violence to maintain it? The answer is clearly no. In fact the statement contradicts the statistical reality that domestic violence crosses all demographic boundaries.

The discussion paper also goes on to state that: "We live in a social structure that through its institutions, laws, social values and individual relationships has glorified violent acts, accepts power over others as a sign of strength and has tended to blame the victim of violence while excusing the abuser." This broad based indictment of our society reflects an extreme level of cynicism and anger which is hardly constructive.

Unfortunately, this is typical of the rhetoric that has been used by many to entrench traditional biases that all men are bad and all women are victims. Since this is the attitude of most writers and lecturers on this subject, is it any wonder that no progress has been made over the decades? If you pit all men against all women and paint each gender with the same brush, all you have done is to establish the lines for endless battle rather than creating an environment for resolution. To choose that course of action is very troubling since it suggests a commitment to the status quo. Are we as a society really prepared to tolerate no progress? Are the consequences of addressing the problem more troubling than the problems we face today? On reflection, it appears that society has opted to tolerate the tragedy of domestic violence and the question is "why?".

Dr. Murray A. Straus, a sociologist and co-director for the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, blames women in the battered women’s shelter movement for denying that women physically abuse husbands, ex-husbands and boyfriends, or they play down such abuse. In his view, there is this fiction in a shelter movement that in all cases, it's him not her who is responsible for domestic assaults. In an interview with the Washington Times on January 24, 1994, Dr. Straus stated that at least 30 studies of domestic violence have shown both sexes to be equally culpable. But he said some of the research, such as a recent Canadian national survey, "left out data on women abusing man … because it's politically embarrassing." He was referring to the 1993 Statistics Canada survey on violence which will be discussed later.

Women and men are almost identical in terms of frequency of attacks such as slapping, shoving and kicking according to Dr. Straus. Using information on married couples obtained from 2,994 women in the 1985 National Family Violence Survey, Dr. Straus said he found a rate for assaults by wives of 124 per 1,000 couples compared with 122 per 1,000 for assaults by husbands.

The rate for minor assaults by wives was 78 per 1,000 couples, and the rate of minor assaults by husbands was 72 per 1,000. For the category of severe assaults the rate was 46 per 1,000 couples for assaults by wives and 50 per 1,000 for assaults by husbands. Neither difference is statistically significant according to Dr. Straus. As these rates were based exclusively on information provided by women respondents, the near equality in the rate of assaults cannot be attributed to gender bias reporting.

In 1979, Dr. Lenore Walker wrote a book entitled "Battered Woman Syndrome" from which the legal defense of the same name originated. Few books of modern times have had such a significant impact in law, in popular culture or in understanding as this one. Every woman who has obtained mitigation in punishment for an act of violence against her mate by pleading "battered woman syndrome" is a direct beneficiary of Dr. Walker's feminist advocacy and research.

Considering the notoriety of the book, I was surprised to come across a highly critical review of the book by writer Robert Schaefer. He started by asking where the sample of women she used for the study of battered woman came from. He also asked whether she had performed a careful selection to obtain a representative sample. In fact she had not. She simply interviewed those women who contacted her in the course of her giving speeches, radio and TV interviews and appearing in news stories, on the subject of research into battered women. Acknowledging that this was a problem, Dr. Walker included the following statement in the introduction to her book: "This is a self volunteered sample. These women were not randomly selected and they cannot be considered a legitimate database from which to make specific generalizations." Having noted this purely for the record, she then proceeded to utterly disregard her own caveat and develop a long list of generalizations derived from this so-called research.

Mr. Schaefer notes that Professor Walker makes mention five times of the largest scale study on domestic violence yet undertaken, the National Institute of Mental Health-financed survey of Straus, Gelles and Steinmetz later published as a book. She cites the book approvingly as the first epidemiological study of battered women undertaken in the country. This however is a serious misrepresentation since it was a detailed study of violence in the American family and not of battered women. She uses findings from the study when it suits her purpose says the critic. However, nowhere does Professor Walker see fit to tell the readers what the final conclusion of the study is being that women initiate violence in intimate relationships at least as often as men. In fact the study found that the number of wives who threw things at their husbands is almost twice as large as the number of husbands who threw things at their wives. The rate for kicking and hitting with an object is also higher for wives than their husbands. Overall, however, the researchers found that there is little difference between husbands and wives in this study.

Mr. Schaefer concludes that like many feminists, Dr. Walker seems not to be trying to improve marriage, but rather to destroy it. The principle faults she finds with the psychiatric treatment of battered women thus far is that psychotherapy has generally emphasized the value of keeping families intact whenever possible. In working with battered women, however, Dr. Walker argues that psychotherapists must encourage breaking a family apart for the protection of the woman.

I was interested to learn that Dr. Walker had also discovered another novel form of battering called "working late". In the book she describes the case of a woman who admits physically attacking her husband. There's no doubt that she began to assault her husband physically before he assaulted her. She argued that her husband had been battering her by ignoring her and by working late in order to move up the corporate ladder for the entire five years of their marriage. Using this logic, Dr. Walker transforms a violent woman, who admitted to hitting her husband in the head with a glass when he came home late from work, into a victim of battery. Surely this represents an example of logic stood on its head and indicates how creative some can be when stakes are so high.

The bias has also been reflected in the reporting of statistics. For example in the United States one of the most prominent educational messages includes the statement that: "One woman is battered every 15 seconds" or 1.8 million per year. However, that data is based on research which also indicated that women abuse men at a rate of 2 million per year or "one man battered every 14 seconds." The same study also found that 54% of all violence termed "severe" was committed by women, not men. Selective use of information is too common a practice in regard to social issues and therefore the onus is on the reader to question the context and validity of data

When you talk about domestic violence, most people will automatically think about violence against women. In fact most provincial police policies that I have seen are written assuming that the violence being discussed is against women. The Ontario provincial police procedures manual is exclusively written to address the victim as a woman. I did however find one police manual which treated domestic violence as a societal issue.

The Winnipeg Police Service has developed a detailed and comprehensive family violence policy and procedure to promote consistent, effective intervention in domestic violence incidents. Significant features of the policy include:

After this policy was implemented in 1993, the Winnipeg Police Service developed a program to educate recruits and existing members about domestic violence and to train them in implementation of the policy. As part of their training all officers receive a booklet entitled "Family Violence, A Guide for Police Officers".

The booklet is a condensed information package on topics related to domestic violence. It includes information to make police officers aware of some myths and facts about domestic violence. It also explains the cycle of violence and some of the reasons why a victim may remain in an abusive relationship. Finally, it outlines various kinds of assistance a victim may require from police officers.

Hats off to the Winnipeg Police Service for at least acknowledging that domestic violence is not just a women’s issue but a societal issue. Domestic violence is a crime and it is the crime that should be responded to without reference to gender. On the other hand, it is disturbing that major police forces such as the Ontario Provincial Police wrote their entire policy as violence against women. One can only wonder what they do when they come across a case where a woman abuses a man.

I had the same concern when I received the Seventh Edition of the Health Canada publication "Preventing Family Violence" published in 1998. It is presented as a catalogue of Canadian videos on family violence for the general public and for professionals working in the field. Although the subject matter is "Family Violence", the 64 films cover Child Abuse and Sexual Abuse, Wife Abuse / Violence Against Women and Abuse of Older Adults. Not one was on family violence generally which at least might give an opportunity to address the subject as a societal issue in which both men and women are perpetrators.

In January, 1998, Health Canada also produced its "Publications Available from the National Clearing House on Family Violence". Not one of the 101 publications is dedicated to family violence as a societal issue perpetrated by men and women. Although I have not read all the publications, the extracts or descriptions are focused on violence against women. I can’t help but wonder whether Health Canada is in denial. There has been so much research that exposes the duality of the problem that it is hard to believe that they cannot be aware. How can you purport to produce a publication on "Family Violence" and ignore a significant part of the problem? The answer to the question is not politically correct.